I like the post-apocalyptic genre. Like reading, watching, and writing in it. Unfortunately, a lot of it is pap. After hearing much word-of-mouth about Johnstone and his "tri-states philosophy," I hoped this would be one of the better flagships for the genre.
The nuclear war is triggered by a coup-gone-wrong involving rogue military hawks (think Jack T. Ripper with scads of accomplices). Ben Raines survives the dirty bomb holocaust, as do many others...inexplicably. He begins touring the ravaged southeastern region, intending to document the nuclear devastation for a memoir, but is unwittingly crowned the leader of a new resistance movement. Idaho, Montana and Wyoming become his empire. But he and his followers are headed for a showdown with the other 47 states.
The opening act was rather tedious to wade through. I suppose the convoluted, improbable conspiracy plot was supposed to rivet me to the pages with suspenseful intrigue as it unfolded, but I really wanted to just skim. Once the missiles struck home, and we got into Ben Raines' point-of-view, it was smoother going.
If Johnstone ever explained why some people survived the radiation and some didn't, I missed it. I thought it rather unrealistic that electricity was still on for so long after a nuclear strike, and that Raines never had trouble finding gas for his vehicles. There is some mention of looting, I think, but our hero never had any trouble finding weapons, ammo, gear, food or clean water. Also, just like Captain Kirk, women threw themselves at him pretty much everywhere he went. Nubile, supermodel-looking women, of course who "didn't like sleeping alone." All but twice, though, Raines and his current squeeze intuitively sensed that their affair would only be casual and temporary...and that was just okie-dokie with both parties. Such is to be expected from the genre, I suppose.
I can go on nit-picking for a while, but I'll try to limit my exclamations of disbelief to just two more elements:
1) His dialog is just outright painful in many places. I have come to expect this problem with inexperienced/immature (yet passionate) writers, but am REALLY annoyed when I see a successful, traditionally published author...of a popular series, no less...getting away with it. How did this ever get published as is?
2) Raines is a Vietnam veteran from a super-secret elite unit which, I guess, would supposedly surpass Delta Force. But at the story's inception he is an alcoholic novelist. Almost everyone he encounters has heard of him, and read his books. And everyone is convinced he is destined to be the savior who unites freedom-loving folks and builds a utopia out of the ashes. Evidently his greatness is plain for everyone to see--everyone but his humble self. He ignores the pleas for his elevation to leadership, but is finally drug to his destiny, kicking and screaming (OK, perhaps I exagerate a wee bit). His greatness is so powerful as to inspire slavish, blind devotion in all the good guys he encounters. Apparently his alcohol-heavy diet and lethargic lifestyle have kept him in supreme fighting condition, too. I don't have a PHD in Group Dynamics or anything like that, but I've studied history, observed the surrounding culture, and worked in/with conglomerations of human beings both in military and civilian contexts. Unless God himself elevated someone like Ben Raines to power (as He did with King Saul and David), that person would never reach the peak of any leadership ladder. People who rise to power...even in regulated structures...are shameless self-promoters; supremely confident in their own abilities (no matter how undeserved that confidence is); "type A" personalities; charismatic; ambitious; control freaks; opportunistic; remorseless; proactive and outgoing. They usually aren't the best choice for leadership, and many times are the worst. But they will beat somebody like Ben Raines in an election, mob takeover or popularity contest (which is what such things turn out to be, beneath the surface, anyway) every single time. It doesn't matter how many dead military officers have endorsed you, or even if the majority of the mob thinks you're the smartest guy with the perfect plan. The guy with the magic mouth and the zealous conviction that he is the best possible man for the job will climb higher and faster. I've taken pains so far not to be harsh or personally insulting to Mr. Johnstone, but this reluctant savior routine reeks of a misfit writer's closet egomania.
Up to now, I've also avoided commenting on the author's political ideas, which he unabashedly rams down the reader's throat throughout the novel. I won't discuss them in detail, because they're at least as convoluted as his expository chapters. But even while preaching racial equality, Johnstone strikes me as a bigot. He also takes periodic jabs at his Religious Right Boogeymen, denouncing the cult of personality embraced by their respective sycophants (kinda like what I touched on above). Meanwhile, his own cult of personality is the driving force behind the Tri-States kingdom. Hypocritical IMO. And while pontificating on his love of freedom, Johnstone/Raines build a utopia which is, in most respects, a totalitarian regime. So while I see all the problems in the USA that Johnstone saw, our viewpoint on feasible solutions are often radically different.
Plot, character(s), dialog, realism and (IMO) political savvy in Out of the Ashes is seriously flawed.